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Donation to promote school referendum is returned after drawing controversy

Contribution from familiar architect replaces returned donation

After some residents recently cried foul, a local parent-teacher group’s donation in support of a school referendum has been returned.

The Avoca Parent-Teacher Council, which supports Wilmette-based elementary-school district Avoca 37, donated $10,000 in January to Vote Yes to Avoca, a state-registered ballot initiative committee that promotes the district’s $90 million referendum to build a new grammar school.

The donation surprised some members of the Avoca community who expressed their concerns to the PTC and on social media. District 37 resident Jasmina de la Torre said the PTC’s political activity lacked transparency and crossed an ethical line, using funds given under other pretenses.

“I had not heard (the donation) was happening. People I talked to had not heard,” de la Torre said. “It seems to me it ought to be something that is discussed. I think you need to be really forthright about that and get people’s input before a decision like that is made.

“Even if (parents support) the referendum that’s not what they donated to the PTC for,” she added.

De la Torre was against the referendum prior to hearing about the donation. Afterward, she gathered with like-minded neighbors to start an ad-hoc group calling itself Concerned Residents of Avoca District 37.

Speaking on the group’s behalf, de la Torre said that even though the donation was returned to the PTC, she wants to know how the contribution was worked into the PTC’s annual budget.

Avoca School Board member Ross Friedman was the PTC’s president when the council’s budget passed in November 2023. He said the PTC’s annual spending budget is approximately $80,000, and in 2023, the group padded its reserves to the tune of $30,000.

In terms of the $10,000 donation, he said the PTC followed the same playbook from 2009, when a previous Avoca 37 referendum was placed on the ballot and the PTC supported its passage with a $10,000 donation.

Friedman said the line item drew a short conversation during a public PTC meeting, to which all PTC members were invited. The proposed donation received “no pushback” before the budget was unanimously approved.

“The PTC is in very strong financial shape. It wasn’t something that was a concern,” he said of the $10,000. “We had the money and it was something we had done in the past.”

Peter Leckerling, an Avoca parent, is the chairperson for the Vote Yes For Avoca ballot initiative committee. He said he had no prior knowledge of a forthcoming donation from the Avoca PTC. After receiving it, Leckerling recognized the donation was the subject of some contention in the community and contacted the PTC on Feb. 13 to return the funds.

“I noticed it was more of a distraction from the referendum,” he said. “We are fortunate to have broad-based support and in a position where returning the contribution was not going to stop our campaign or our momentum.”

Leckerling said donated funds are used on standard campaign efforts, such as community outreach and yards signs to encourage support of the upcoming referendum.

According to previous reporting from The Record, the district announced its intentions to move forward with facility improvements in May 2023, beginning conversations on renovations that could cost anywhere between $30 million and $90 million.

The Avoca School Board voted in December 2023 to place an $89.8 million referendum on the March ballot. If approved, the funding would enable the district to build a new pre-K through fifth-grade school in Wilmette near its sister school, Marie Murphy junior high. The new school would replace Avoca West in Glenview.

If the referendum passes, district residents with a $350,000 home would see an annual increase of about $1,100 on their property-tax bill, according to district estimates.

A day after Vote Yes For Avoca returned the PTC’s check, it received an $8,000 contribution from DLA Architects, an architectural design firm that often works with public agencies, including Avoca District 37, according to district documents. DLA is already involved in the district’s improvement efforts, leading an analysis of its facilities last year, according to previous Record reporting.

Leckerling said he was unaware of DLA’s contribution when the committee returned PTC’s donation.

Friedman, who was elected to the School Board in 2023, said DLA’s donation would not influence the board’s future project decisions.

“Definitely not,” he said. “It would just be a matter of what is best for the project, I can very confidently say.”

Current PTC President Ann Heinz said after the organization was criticized, she and her fellow PTC officers reviewed the group’s bylaws and do not believe they were violated when the PTC donated to Vote Yes For Avoca.

She said the group’s intention with the donation was not to support a political cause but to help “encourage the community to invest in the schools … and improve our infrastructure.”

In response to the negative feedback, Heinz said the PTC is already working to strengthen its communication efforts and improve how and when it posts meeting agendas and times, “so there are no surprises,” she said.

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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